Prelude: The Sibyl of  Saint-Germain

We women leave so few traces, do we not?—Madame Marie-Anne Lenormand

By my sibyl’s blood, I am one who perceives the fulcrum connecting past and present to future times. Like gathering clouds, my visions form even as the ink dries upon this smudged page. You bear witness, my friend, not only to the tale I have to tell, but to the possibility that one such as myself can tether past to future and move the dead to speak. Were it not required, I should never presume upon your solitude, for no storytelling, however intimate, can recall the fullness of even one moment of life’s song. And here, I must remind you, dear friend, that you live in my future. Though you hear me, you cannot embrace me, nor can I impose upon you the direction you must take. It is your will… to do what you will… as you will… when you will. I can only shuffle my cards and tell my tale.

Because I must begin somewhere, I will tell you first it is true what they say: thousands have queried me, including many whose names now burn the pages of history. I had them all at my feet. Men of power. Yes, Robespierre frequented my parlor. “Your downfall will be Danton,” I told him—and to Danton, I warned of the guillotine. And though she did not welcome it, I told Joséphine of her divorce and of the Emperor’s ultimate demise. Yes, I shuffled my deck for Napoléon. I foresaw that strength would enable him to overcome virtue, rendering him a slave to flatterers. There have been kings, too—during this sorry Restoration of which I now write—kings who have called my art black, and strictly forbade it. These days, I am obliged to veil my vocation and practice it within a besieged citadel. Indeed, I pay a good many a good deal to keep my sanctum sanctorum operative. In Paris superstition has always been rife. But they come to Madame Lenormand all the same, from the common serving girl, to the sly mistress, to the delicate gloved Chopin. They come, seeking insight and advice, as do you. Know I aim only to speak truth, not solely for the honor of speaking it, but because truth is useful. It rises, supernatant upon the vast surface of the ages.

It is to a warm, waning day in the autumn of 1823 that I first direct your attention. I was fast approaching my sixtieth year, and how I found it within my prowess to scale Montmartre’s oldest pear tree, who can say? The tree’s portly trunk spread into a triangular set of limbs, each as round as a full-grown man. Amidst this elevated thicket, some genius built a wooden platform beneath a thatched canopy, ringed it with a railing, and furbished it with tables and chairs. A sketchy staircase spiraled the trunk and creaked with every step. I always wore my kid-leather boots when I climbed it because they were well-suited for long tramps, though the rosette at the toe was silk, a charming touch.

Sophia had arrived tout ensemble that day, in a cerise Spencer with a dropped waistline. I had long since abandoned the latest trends, preferring the high waist of the Empire. We climbed with care, the two of us, gathering our skirts in our hands so as to reveal just enough ankle to incite delicious outcries from the crowd below. We laughed and waved and sat at a table to imbibe the fermented cider Poirier-sans-Pareil had made famous. The tangled old tavern enclosed the tree in its courtyard. A dance floor spilled out onto a crowded porch with tables so numerous that, long ago, they escaped into the garden and crawled up the trunk of the old pear tree where the thatched platform was built. It housed thirty-six chairs and I had sat in every one.

With the smell of overripe pears rising from the ground below, Sophia and I reminisced among leaves turning red and gold and brown as we studied the industry on Rue des Martyrs. We had quite warmed to our perch when Sophia leaned forward and whispered her important news. “I finally located the child, Marie-Anne. After all these years, we have found him!”

“Thank god.”

“Yes, but when I told Géricault it was not good. First he wept, which I understand, but then he leapt up and rode off like a madman.”

“To reach Alexandra, no doubt, to tell her?” I asked.

Sophia nodded. “He has never recovered, nor poor Alexandra.”

I sipped my punch. For four long years I had been trying to free Alexandra from her husband’s hand, with absolutely no success. “She is entombed, like one who is dead. I cannot even a get message to her. The poor thing.”
Sophia had plumped down across from me where she could watch the waiters climb the staircase one-handed, balancing trays. It’s quite possible this small feat is what kept us returning. We were not too old to admire masculine beauty, and the boys who worked the tree house were well-built, rosy-cheeked specimens who knew how to flatter and delight. A case of mutual admiration: Parisian boys understand the value of experience, you see, and recognize the gratuities emancipated maturity affords.

Indeed, we had been regulars at Poirier-sans-Pareil and its tree house since the hillsides of Montmartre first bloomed with guinguettes in the days of poorLouis le Dernier. It was his misfortune to inherit the debts of the Ancien Régime, but the hapless fool hastened the Revolution not only by marrying Marie Antoinette, but by enclosing Paris within a medieval wall built to tax the goods sold within. Among other sins, the wall severed Rue des Martyr in half so its southern terminus fell inside the barrier, while its northern reaches romped wild and tax-free outside—which, of course, is why everyone frequented Montmartre for food and drink and dance—as did we.

Though I resided on the Left Bank, I loved Montmartre with its vineyards and windmills. It was, even in bygone years, a jewel, and only once—during those fateful days when the Cossacks chased Napoléon’s Grande Armée all the way to Paris—did I abandon my haunt. No one, save soldiers, ventured up the slopes of Montmartre during that sorry time. And after the Cossacks nailed Monsieur Debray to the blades of his windmill, Rue des Martyrs took on a decidedly political bent. When Napoléon, much to his surprise, proved to be mortal and the Bourbons were restored to the throne, brasseries, like Chez Dinocheau—whose wooden facade marked the intersection where Rue Bréda meets Rue des Martyrs—became crowded with cigarette smoke, loud Bonapartists, and defiant liberals.

The old street, worn smooth by history, marked a path of martyrdom. Here, in the early hours of Roman glory, Saint Denis climbed to its summit, the highest point overlooking the Seine. The sanctity of the hill chimed ancient even then, dotted already with windmills and cultivated in vine and cereal. By order of a Roman governor, Saint Denis was beheaded atop this holy hill. Undaunted by the insult, the old bishop rose up, took his head in his hands and walked some distance before succumbing to the inevitable. Impressed by this stubbornness, our ancestors carved his likeness into the façade of the Notre Dame de Paris, and proclaimed him France’s patron saint.

The sun had moved behind clouds and Sophia had drifted into a tale about her sweet Bréda girls. She’s a midwife, full of compassion and tittle-tattle—for the girls who work the streets always know who is bedding whom and where the gold is flowing. We had raised our third glass when a rider raced by at an awful clip.

“That’s Théodore Géricault.” Sophia always carried her mother-of-pearl opera glasses at hand “He rides like a man chasing death.”

“Sadly, he is.” I leaned forward and pulled on Sophia’s arm. “I warned him,” I told her. “You know that—I warned him more than once. You will fall from a high stride, I told him, and take another with you. I said it from the very beginning, from the day he first came to me. And I told Alexandra to disappear without a trace.”

Sophia set down her glasses. “And the cards? What do they tell you?”

“Her fate is not inconsequential, Sophia. It will seep like water through stone, slowly across generations, having its effect. Géricault will leave his mark, both to his glory and his shame. But, Alexandra, I fear, will be all but forgotten.”
The sky had grown dark with a summer storm. My eye wandered as it does when there is more to come. I sat back as the world slipped out of focus. Everywhere I gazed, it was like scrying with the glass. “Time has ripened,” I said. Thunder rumbled; the storm was moving in. “We will all return to this mortal coil—in other cloaks. Only then will sense be made of what we have sewn.”

We rose to leave.

“And the child?” Sophia asked.

“That has yet to be written.”